Mark Fisher, 1968 – 2017
Sometime back in the early 2000s, I began following a blog by a mysterious character called ‘K-Punk’. K-Punk wrote with rare brilliance – and at astonishing speed – about music and other idiosyncratic preoccupations: J.G. Ballard’s urban dystopias; films by Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and David Cronenberg; 70s sci-fi TV series; the coastal landscapes of south east England; writers of otherworldly stories like Ursula Le Guin and H.P. Lovecraft; X-Men comics; Christopher Nolan’s Batman; Kate Moss; the England football team. His rapturously eloquent, bracingly erudite posts on pop music – in its various underground and overground forms – were, though, the first to snag my interest. Often, they were hilariously spot-on in their caustic hostility towards sacred cows.
My heart leapt when I read his lacerating take on The Clash: “The music is unredeemable: a frustrated, frustrating, blocked, blunt, ugly sludginess. None of the Pistols’ cascading Glam power, none of Lydon’s sorcerous incandescence…” His assessment of Glastonbury was equally glorious: “What’s positively sinister about Glastonbury now is that it’s not just accidentally crap, it’s systematically crap – the hidden message screams out: it’s all finished, roll up, roll up, for the necrophiliac spectacle, it’s all over.”
But if there was frustration and fury, there was also unrelenting fascination with – and mesmerised fixation on – pop’s most urgent or undervalued presences. K-Punk’s texts combined an entirely non-precious and energetically conversational commentary on the passing world of pop culture with generous, undemonstrative displays of theoretical agility and – increasingly, over time – clear-sighted political insight and commitment.
When Francis Halsall, Tim Stott and I had the chance in 2006 to organise a mini-symposium at NCAD, K-Punk – AKA Mark Fisher – was the first name on our list. And to be honest, our main reason for wanting to plan this symposium was so that we could bring Mark to Dublin. Hence our chosen theme of ‘Hauntology’: a punning post-structuralist concept first dreamt-up by Jacques Derrida, but made more immediately compelling by Mark. In a series of revelatory blog posts and related articles (later collected in his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life), Mark helped to broaden the scope and implications of ‘hauntology’ through explorations of ghostliness in assorted songs, stories, sites and images – sensing out the manifold and melancholy ways in which contemporary culture remains haunted by the spectres of unresolved pasts or unrealised futures.
In different forms, with varying intensities, the ‘spectral’ was for Mark a source of necessary disruption: its disconcerting effects were flickers of instability in the apparently ‘real’ world that we are conditioned to believe in: that “sunny, gleaming world of the postmodern or the end of history” (to borrow from Fredric Jameson, a thinker whom Mark greatly admired). Mark’s own term for our apparently post-historical, ideologically static present-day predicament was ‘Capitalist Realism’. It’s a concept discussed in the accompanying article: one of the many columns he wrote for VAN – pieces commissioned, with typical savviness, by the unforgettable Jason Oakley, who tragically passed away in October 2015.
Capitalist Realism was also the subject (and title) of Mark’s best-known book: a text written in resistance to the shrugging assumption that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. The book rejects the “business ontology” that has begun to dominate all forms of labour, learning and leisure, rebutting the commonplace understanding that “it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business”.
Capitalist Realism is a book that I’ve recommended to scores of students over recent years – but more encouragingly, it’s a book that students have repeatedly recommended to me. More and more, its arguments seem relevant to the current ‘realities’ of education: to the experience of students and to the demands made on staff. And, in fact, one standout memory I have of Mark is of his speech at a degree results meeting for the Goldsmiths Department of Visual Cultures in 2015 (Mark was a lecturer and exams officer there during my stint as external examiner), during which he made a special point of both celebrating the exceptional efforts of students and staff, and also challenging, with impressive clarity and sincerity, some of the exhausting, absurd new norms of life in higher education.
One crucial thread through Mark’s work is depression. Not only did he make an important case for re-politicising mental health – encouraging us to de-personalise depression, refusing the “privatisation of stress”, connecting it instead to wider situations of social malaise – but he was also courageously frank about his own struggles. Even as now, with deep sadness, we learn that these struggles finally overwhelmed him, we can be sure that his writings have inspired numerous readers who suffer from similar types of ongoing distress. ‘Inspiration’ is, indeed, what most comes to mind in relation to Mark. I can’t imagine how much those closest to him –most of all his wife and son – will miss him; but I know Mark and his work will continue to be an inspiration for many, many people, for a very long time to come.